Sooner or later a meditator will encounter a meditative experience – which is a time of rejoicing, and a time for concern. Meditative absorption, as coveted as it may be, is not the point of the path, for we are not trying to create a state of mind that we then label as “spiritual.”
These meditative experiences can range from simple tranquility to radiant ecstasy. They can manifest as an out-of-body experience, total cessation of thought, or simply sensations of clarity and bliss. You might have an experience of profound meditation, or of union with the entire cosmos, and say to yourself, “This is it! This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
I was overwhelmed with joy. The hairs on my body stood on end, and I was moved to tears… My body was intoxicated with undefiled bliss… There dawned an experience beyond words. – The Tibetan sage Marpa
Easy to Get Hooked
When I stumbled into my tiny samadhi during my first meditation instruction and it was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I tasted the power of meditation and the bliss of a pacified mind. I had no idea this dimension of experience was even possible, and a new world opened before me. I spent the next few years trying to recapture that state. I was hooked.
This hook is initially healthy because it pulls us towards the spiritual path, but at a certain point this hook must be cut. Any hook, no matter how sweet, eventually leads us astray. It’s almost impossible not to grasp after these experiences because they can be so transformative and blissful. However, anytime grasping is involved, even if it’s for a spiritual experience, you’re back in samsara. You become hooked again into the conditioned world of endless dissatisfaction.
Bad experiences, if you do not become trapped by them, are actually blessings in disguise. In my life, really, difficulties have been my greatest teacher. They really helped me to transform. When you’re really on the path, really true, then whatever obstacles arise they can become a blessing. Good experiences are more dangerous. You may become proud, or complacent, or attached – then they become traps. –Sogyal Rinpoche
Three Classic Meditation Experiences: Bliss, Clarity, and Non-thought
There are three common types of meditation experiences that snare the more evolved, or lucky, meditator. These are the experiences of bliss, clarity, and non-thought, the by-products of meditative absorption. They are the purest honey covering the sharpest hooks.
Bliss is the experience of everything and every thought as heavenly. We delight in whatever occurs. We may feel like we have transcended all conflicting emotions, and express our rapture through song and dance. Bliss easily trips us into believing we have soared into the highest states of realization.
Clarity is perceiving whatever arises as pure, sharp, and brilliant. Phenomena are lucid and diamond-like, and it is possible to even see light emanating from objects. Our sense perceptions are heightened and acute, we are more impervious to torpor, and everything seems awake and vibrant. We are also able to more readily grasp and understand things.
Non-thought, or mental spaciousness, is the cessation of discursive thinking. It is utter stillness, like diving below the surface of a stormy sea. We are able to rest our mind in whatever state it is in.
These experiences can arise alone or in combination. Non-thought, for example, is blissful, and gives birth to clarity. These three experiences are mental candy, and a taste is okay, but feasting on these sweets will make your meditation sick. While they are delicious states of mind, they are also just partial experiences of enlightenment
The main cause of misperceptions regarding meditation experience is that, after the loss of the initial fervor, we may forget to focus on the essence of meditation and its purpose and instead place more and more emphasis on the underlying meditative experience itself. – Traleg Rinpoche
Spiritual Experience is Called “Nyam” in Tibetan
If these temporary experiences, called “nyam” in Tibetan, are not understood, they poison even the most advanced meditator. They are sophisticated traps that arise at any point, but tend to occur at higher levels. They are common and very dangerous.
Meditators who run after experiences [nyams], like a child running after a beautiful rainbow, will be misled. When you practice intensely, you may have flashes of clairvoyance and various signs of accomplishment, but all they do is foster expectations and pride – they are just devilish tricks and the source of obstacles. – Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
I have seen many “enlightened” teachers, mostly Western, who are hooked by the experience of nyams. They often extol the extraordinary and ecstatic aspects of meditation, and easily snag others just as they themselves have been snagged. Their experiences sound so delectable, so “spiritual,” that it is tempting to follow their bliss. This is another instance of why it is not always best to “follow your bliss.”
Nyams are the “Meditator’s High”
There is nothing inherently problematic with these experiences, the problem is one of improper relationship. Because they feel so good we get addicted. Like the endorphin released in a “runner’s high,” these nyams, are the “meditator’s high,” and like any long distance runner, long distance meditators also want more of this buzz. But as we have seen, the point is not to feel good, but to get real.
These experiences can indicate that we are doing the right thing, for they are glimpses of the nature of the enlightened mind and can point the way. But we will lose our way if we try to repeat them. They are by-products of meditation. The problem is that we think they are the final product of meditation.
The point is to be receptive to any state of mind, even those we deem unspiritual. Because our normal mind is so frantic, these experiences can be easily mistaken for grand realization. The contrast is so dramatic we think these nyams are it.
In Tibetan there is a word called “nyam” = experience, but changing. If you have experiences like this, this is not enlightenment, so you have to let go of it. We should never “try” to get this experience again. If you practice you will get experiences and they come and go. – Tsokyni Rinpoche
Related Reading “Problems in Meditation and the Spiritual Path”